Judaism had never played a large role in Mike Feinberg’s life, but after finishing his master’s degree in employment and labor relations, he started doing some soul-searching. He had always loved travel and something, call it destiny, made him sign up for a Birthright trip to Israel through J’Burgh, Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh’s group for young Jewish professionals.
During the 10 days in Israel the group participated in fun and exciting activities, reported Feinberg, such as hiking up Masada, riding on a camel, sleeping in tents in the desert, and floating in the Dead Sea. They did meaningful and thought provoking activities like volunteering in Karmiel-Misgav, Pittsburgh’s sister municipality in the Galilee, touring the Yad Vashem memorial and observing Shabbat at a kibbutz. The journey culminated with a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
It was there that Feinberg had “an amazing [and] very emotional experience,” he said. “I felt so connected to Judaism there.”
The whole trip, the sense of community with Israel, the intensity of standing in the shadow of what was once the Temple, solidified a sense of belonging. “I felt like I really found a Jewish identity,” he explained. “It was a life-changing experience.”
When Feinberg came home to Pittsburgh in May 2014, he felt fired up, and he didn’t want it to stop. He wanted to get involved in the Jewish community and destiny again intervened. As soon as he started looking for a job, a position opened up at Hillel JUC recruiting students for Taglit-Birthright Israel trips.
“It was beshert,” said Feinberg, now the Israel Engagement Coordinator for Hillel JUC.
The main thing he wants is for students to have a life-changing experience the way he did.
“I want them to find their own Jewish identity,” he said, and being a part of a community, such as Hillel JUC, is a major piece of Jewish identity.
Feinberg’s enthusiasm for Judaism is not limited to his workday: He started studying Jewish concepts with a senior educator at Hillel, is learning Hebrew and attends Shabbat dinners at Hillel. He hopes to become fluent in Hebrew.
“I never really observed Shabbat before. Now I’m embracing Shabbat,” he said. “It’s nice after a full week of work to have one day of rest.”
Feinberg recently returned from leading his first group on a Birthright trip, students who had not been very involved in Jewish life prior to leaving Israel.
Emma Raszmann is one of the students. A junior studying electrical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, she was raised with both Judaism and Christianity. Her Jewish mother, who taught Jewish traditions to Raszmann and her brother, passed away when she was 9.
“My mother taught us everything we knew about Judaism, but after she passed away, it was difficult for my brother and I to continue learning and keeping the traditions that we had practiced every year,” said Raszmann. Her family believed that the children should explore both sides and be free to choose when they got older. Today, she is “still exploring, but the Birthright trip helped me feel connected to the Jewish religion.”
Raszmann was amazed in particular by the beauty of the land.
“The sightseeing took my breath away,” she exclaimed. “I didn’t know how beautiful Israel was.”
She learned about Israel’s history and the Jewish religion, but the number one experience for her was visiting the Western Wall.
“It was very powerful to be in that place where everyone is so focused, talking with God,” said Raszmann. “I had never felt so religious before. I didn’t know what to expect, but as soon as I put my head against the wall, and placed my hands on the wall, I immediately felt a feeling of thankfulness. … I can’t put it into words, but it was a very powerful experience for me.”
Now that she is back, she wants to strengthen her Jewish involvement and study. She even told her brother to find a Birthright trip to join.
Simone Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.